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Can a Mask Help Protect You from Flu?

Wearing a face mask may help protect you from flu. What helps even more is for infected people to wear a mask if they can't stay at home.
Woman wearing face mask protect filter against air pollution (PM2.5) or wear N95 mask. protect pollution, anti smog and viruses, Air pollution caused health problem. environmental pollution concept.

During flu season, people want to know how they can keep from catching it. Public health experts are happy to give advice. Most of the time, however, it boils down to just two items: get a flu shot and wash your hands. There is also advice that can help protect you from flu if other people follow it. Stay home if you are sick, and cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough. Perhaps the most important advice is the hardest to follow, and that is don’t touch your face, including your eyes, unless you have just scrubbed your hands thoroughly. Flu viruses like to hang out on gasoline pump handles, elevator buttons and doorknobs, and letting them into your eyes, nose or mouth is asking for trouble. Does it help to wear a face mask in flu season?

Could a Face Mask Protect You from Flu?

Q. I take immune-suppressing drugs for multiple sclerosis. During flu season, I wear a face mask to protect myself from viruses.

I also wear one whenever I travel. I felt a little awkward the first time I wore a mask on an airplane, but I soon realized that it was my “superpower.” People seem to avoid me, which is just fine. I also bring hand sanitizer to wipe down the tray table, arm rests and anything else that I will end up touching.

A. We applaud your prudence. Millions of people are now taking immune-suppressing drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, colitis and other serious auto-immune conditions. This may leave them more vulnerable to infection.

A level three surgical mask is as effective as a disposable respirator (N95) against viral transmission (JAMA, Sept. 3, 2019). In addition to hitching a ride on your hands, flu viruses spread in airborne particles. The masks may cut down on the number that reach your airwaves. Moreover, when you are wearing a mask, you are less likely to touch your mouth or nose unconsciously. Wearing a mask on a plane is a sensible precaution for you.

The greatest value of a face mask, though, is for the person who has a cold or the flu. The mask will catch those particles when she coughs or sneezes and trap them before they can circulate. So a face mask can really protect you from flu most effectively when the infected person wears it.

Hand-Washing During Flu Season:

Your idea of using hand sanitizer on the airplane is brilliant. Airplane tray tables are frequently contaminated. Since you don’t have ready access to soap and water at your seat, using an alcohol-based hand rub is a great solution.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Colds, Coughs & the Flu
  • Radonovich LJ et al, "N95 respirators vs medical masks for preventing influenza among health care personnel: A randomized clinical trial." JAMA, Sept. 3, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.11645
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Unfortunately, the picture in your article of the person touching the front of their facemask will result in contamination of their hand, defeating the purpose of the mask as referenced in a recent NY Times article.

Does a bandana work as well as a mask?

For the tray tables, arm rests, etc, on the plane, I carry a zip lock bag that I have filled with Clorox or Lysol wipes. I fold individual wipes into smaller rectangles so I can pack enough for the return trip and all my plane transfers. When I get settled in my seat, I pull out my ziplock bag and start wiping everything that I could possibly touch.

I though hand sanitizer had basically been disproved as a method for killing viruses.

Face masks are great as long as they are used correctly. Once they are damp they should be discarded, and when you remove it, fold the inside onto itself so you spread nothing inside. Store used re-useable ones in a plastic bag until you can put it in the washing machine.

One source of germs spreading is the handle on the tea urn in self-serve restaurants. Note that some patrons wipe their nose or mouth and then get their tea for washing down their food. So, when one goes for their refill, use a napkin on the handle, pleeze.

My immune system is messed up from Lyme Disease and autoimmune complications so I fear the H3N2 flu that kills by hyper-activating the immune system. I suffer through grocery shopping in a surgical mask and gloves to protect against the ever- present coughers and sneezers who insist on shopping while sick. For some reason other shoppers always assume I’m wearing all this protection because I’M the one who sick. I always respond “I’m not sick, y’all are,” which baffles them. People in my area can’t imagine staying home when sick or taking precautions like wearing a mask to keep their germs to themselves or even by coughing and sneezing into their elbows. There is ALWAYS someone sick and coughing when I shop in winter. Always. My favorite is when I see some woman wheeling around a shopping cart up and down the aisles while her sick child stands in the basket coughing constantly. During the school day of course! There are a lot of “super-spreaders” where I live.

A few years ago a close family member spent some time in the ICU of a major city hospital. I noticed some of the ICU nurses and other staff were wearing facemarks, and some were not. I asked one of the staff why this was, and he explained that the ones wearing masks had opted not to get a flu shot and had to wear them for the duration of the flu season. I was interested by this because, after all, these staff people were working on the front lines of infectious disease -and- alongside infectious disease specialists all day every day, yet nonetheless were choosing not to get a flu shot.

I bring several masks whenever I fly anywhere. If there is a person coughing like mad, I offer one to them. If they refuse, I wear one to protect myself. I get it if you’re sick and have no choice but to fly. But then be considerate of every one else and wear a mask. Most germs are spread by respiratory droplets, and people need to either keep theirs to themselves or others need to block the transmission to themselves.

Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is not effective against the flu or other viruses. I think it would have been better to clarify that fact.

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